I put another cut of venison into the hot pan and watched it sizzle. Given my relative immunity to fire and heat, I’d volunteered to hold the pan since we didn’t have gear for it. My arm wasn’t getting tired, but I still shifted the pan between my four hands out of some lingering habit.
Behind me, my half-angel partner Seyari sat on a log and stared into the flames. Across from her, a Cavenish man with messy black hair, Salvador, also stared into the fire.
I looked up at the smoke that twirled away into the partly-cloudy late afternoon sky. We were far enough from Mordwell’s estate, probably, that a fire would be fine.
Truthfully, we were lost. I’d run full tilt for hours until Seyari insisted I’d gone far enough and could stop carrying her and Salvador like sacks of potatoes. The other two had managed part of a night’s sleep the night before while I had stayed up to keep watch. We were still in the forest, but the terrain had turned to rolling hills from sharp ridges, and broadleaf trees had begun to mix in with the endless wall of pine.
This also meant an increase in the undergrowth, and would slow our progress until we found a hunting trail or large animal path. The other result of the undergrowth was that I found out I had an immunity to poison ivy, being a demon and all.
Seyari cured her own ivy rash with holy magic, while Salvador’s smart choice of clothing had kept him safe. That, and the fact he was the one to recognize and warn us. Seyari may have had a lot of experience with stealth, but Salvador was the trained woodsman among us.
I’d probably run west. That’s where I’d aimed anyway, but Salvador had warned us that meant little. His Ordian was progressing rapidly, and I relished the chance to improve my Cavenish. The man had taken to my demonic nature quite well. He still fidgeted when I moved faster than I ought to have, or did something inhuman, but was largely interested in peppering me with questions about what it was like to be a demon.
Salvador reminded me of Aretan in that way, but his questions were all about the social aspects of being a demon, rather than my abilities. I spoke openly with him, leaving out the part of my story with the Sovereign of Lust, but truthfully there wasn’t much I could tell him. I hadn’t had a lot of chances to really interact in society as my demonic self—the thing that most people would run screaming from or try to kill.
I learned he had a demon-blooded daughter, and he said I reminded him of her in more ways than one. I felt flattered, and hoped I could meet her someday.
The conversation changed when Seyari asked what the paladin and I had spoken about.
“She’s my sister,” I replied, offering Seyari the cooked cut of meat.
She made to spear it with a knife, but stopped midway. “What?”
I resisted the urge to take the venison steak for myself and instead speared a raw one on a claw and stuck my hand into the fire behind me. “My sister from before I became a demon. So, still my sister. Her name is Kartania Miller.”
“That is an astounding coincidence, Zarenna,” Salvador said in Cavenish.
I shrugged. “Yes and no. She was there when Inquisitor Finley had our family killed for some ritual. If my sister wanted revenge and Mordwell was in charge of that cult, then she’d reach him eventually. She was always smarter than I was, and more driven.”
“You’re plenty smart!” Seyari surprised me by defending me. She finally took the venison steak from the pan.
“I mean, I guess,” I replied and furrowed my brow. “But Tania is really, really smart.” I looked over at the partially charred and mostly raw piece of venison in my hand. Good enough. I took it out and started eating. With my other two hands, I put the next cut on for Salvador.
“Learn to take a compliment!” Seyari huffed around a mouthful of food.
“Maybe I will.” I forced a smile.
Seyari smirked in response. “Why do you think she joined the Church then, Zarenna?”
“I couldn’t say. Clearly, she wants to get close to Mordwell and take him down, but I can’t imagine why she’d join up in the first place.”
“Perhaps she had nowhere else to go?” Salvador replied thoughtfully, then added, “I do not mean to be rude, or to presume.”
I thought back to that night. We had relatives, but few in Linthel, and none we were close to. Who would take her in?
“What about the civil war?” Seyari asked. “Could that have done something.”
For a moment, I imagined the fire again, this time with an army in the streets. Gods, what had Kartania gone through? Her eyes were so cold…
Seyari started. “Sorry if I—”
“—It’s fine,” I lied. “I think you might be right. King Carvalon was the Lord of Linthel at the time and if the civil war started there, then perhaps Kartania had few options.” I flipped Salvador’s steak. “I’ll have to ask her at the next winter solstice.”
“Why?” Seyari asked. “Are you meeting her?”
I forgot I’d not told the others that yet. “Yes. In Linthel. We can go there after Lockmoth.”
“If you do not mind, I would like to join you.” Salvador looked from his cooking steak to me. “I had been helping Paladin Miller, your sister, but I do not think it wise for me to try to return there. My goal, as I have said, was to find you anyway.”
“I don’t mind.” I moved the pan over so Salvador could spear his meal. “But, why do you want to find me?”
Salvador met my gaze, and took his cut. “There are things I must learn of the nature of demons and of those who carry their blood. I believe that, by following you, I will find my answers.”
I nodded, then smiled. “If there’s anything you think I might be able to answer right now, go ahead and ask!”
Salvador’s hood hid the ghost of a smile that played across his features. “I don’t suppose you have significant knowledge of what exactly it means to be demon-blooded?”
I shook my head, resisting the obvious joke. “No, unfortunately. Do you think you’ll learn more about that following Seyari and me?”
Salvador glanced at Seyari and back to me, then shrugged. “I do, yes.”
Seyari hummed thoughtfully. “I can respect your secrets—I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t. But I do have one question: Why haven’t you asked after my old identity? If you were working with Renna’s sister, then I imagine you know who I was.”
Salvador nodded. “I do. But I trust you are not the same person now. I also know from Paladin Miller that the truth of your past is not so black and white.”
Seyari looked surprised. “Thanks, Salvador. I’d like to have you along.”
“Then it’s agreed!” I looked to the ranger.
Salvador smiled. “Thank you for having me, but there are a few more things you must know.”
“What?” I asked, curious.
“What?” Seyari asked, suspicious.
“High Inquisitor Mordwell has some means to track Seyari. I don’t know what means, but it was how he knew to set up the ambush, and how—”
“Fuck,” Seyari interrupted.
I frowned. “How what?”
“How Paladin Miller knew you were observing the estate. High Inquisitor Mordwell told her, and the other guards as well.” Salvador cut a piece of meat and stared at it intently before popping it into his mouth.
“That doesn’t make any sense!” Seyari exclaimed. “Why would Mordwell send one guard, or even all of them, out after us? For that matter, why the ambush? Why not just hole up and wait?”
Salvador shook his head and swallowed. “I don’t know. Paladin Miller seemed to, but she wouldn’t tell me her thoughts on the matter. I don’t think she was supposed to go and investigate, I think she might have wanted to talk to Seyari, but didn’t know Renna was with her.”
“He didn’t know how strong I was,” I said quietly. “He didn’t think I was really worth considering.”
“And now he will.” Seyari furrowed her brow, and leaned forward with her elbows on her knees. She looked into the fire and then up at me. “But why? He’s always been paranoid—the Mordwell I know would have played patiently. He wouldn’t have taken a risk with an unknown quantity. Besides, I was almost able to take all of them out myself.”
We were all silent for some time, and then Salvador shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “What if, for some reason, High Inquisitor Mordwell intended the ambush to fail.”
“Why would—” I started to ask, then froze when realization hit me like a sword through the heart.
“FUCK!” Seyari shouted, startling both me and Salvador.
“Do—do you think I might be correct?” Salvador asked hesitantly, unsure what Seyari and I had just realized.
I turned to Salvador. “He might have meant to create a demon to bind.”
“By Dhias…” the Cavenish man turned paler than an Edathan.
Seyari continued to curse in the background.
Something still seemed off to me. “That would leave his house without the people at the ambush. And the ambush almost succeeded.”
Seyari spat into the fire. “If the guards were all like your sister, and Mordwell could still fight, we’d probably still have lost a frontal assault. And the bastard did all this because he wins either way. He either kills us, or makes a demon. Or both.” Seyari looked at me, eyes full of rage and sorrow. “If I died, part of me would make a wrath demon. I’m damn sure of that.”
“Fuck,” I cursed, then I thought of Lorelei. Of Lorelei’s last words. The bottom of my stomach dropped out and twisted into a painful knot. I turned quickly and tried to retch on the needle covered ground, one arm still holding the pan over the fire. Nothing came up—my demonic body refused to make physical the nausea from my mind. My body might not be able to suffer from grief or revulsion, but my mind was enough. It’d have to be.
““Renna?”” Seyari and Salvador both jumped up.
I turned, wiping my mouth with a grimace. “Lorelei. And Markus.” My mouth tasted like bile and regret.
“Fuck,” Seyari said.
Salvador’s brow darkened.
“Should we go back…” I trailed off, knowing the answer.
Seyari shook her head and moved over to sit next to me.
We sat like that for a while, until Salvador spoke up, almost timidly. “Forgive me, but I do not think I have the same idea of what makes a demon.”
Seyari and I shared a look and nodded. Together, we launched into an explanation of the nature of demons, careful to leave out the details of who had told us.
“So, we’re off to Lockmoth to meet with Aretan and Nelys, and then Linthel to meet Tania,” I observed, putting another cut of meat over the fire for myself. “Do we want to just walk there?”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Seyari replied. “But we need to find out where we are first, and we might want some kind of legitimacy for when Mordwell comes after us again. He can track me, and he’s not the type to let a loose end go free.”
I frowned. Seyari had a good point. “We could join or found a mercenary company, maybe? Like what Aretan had back in Navanaea?”
“Perhaps,” Salvador replied.
“Maybe,” Seyari said, touching a finger to her chin. “It’d get complicated if we wanted to reveal that you’re a demon, and we should probably find a big company to join rather than found one or join a small one. More of a backing that way.”
“Sounds good to me.” I gave two thumbs up.
Conversation was light for the rest of the meal, then we packed up and resumed walking. Unfortunately, I had to change into my last set of normal clothes. We all knew wearing my dress, which had repaired itself due to the enchantment on it, would be a mistake. I’d miss the garment, but wearing it too much would make it less special. I also had to admit the dress didn’t fit with what we were doing.
We needed to find a town for supplies after nearly all of my stuff was lost, so the first order of business was to locate a road.
“You can’t go around showing off you’re a demon and ‘just smile and explain it’.” Seyari sighed exasperatedly. “You have to know this. You have to be messing with me.”
I turned to Salvador. “Back me up here?” I gave him my best winning smile.
The ranger shivered involuntarily. “You should stay looking human, Zarenna.”
I frowned. “Is it the smile?”
“No,” Seyari answered sarcastically.
“Yes,” Salvador answered honestly.
“What if I just dull my teeth?” I asked the other two. “Like this?”
I shifted my teeth to human teeth. They felt odd in my mouth, though, so I settled for something more like an in-between. I couldn’t shape my teeth however I wanted, so I hoped they looked okay. Soon, I’d have to transform into my human form, but I needed levity right now. I could tell Seyari did too. I still couldn’t get Lorelei’s death out of my mind.
I gave another smile.
Salvador looked quickly away and pulled his hood tighter against the afternoon rain.
Seyari’s expression twisted. “That’s worse… somehow.”
I pouted and turned my head aside. We’d followed hunting trails for a day and hadn’t yet reached a road. I was risking my true form, borrowing Salvador’s spare cloak to cover myself. I had dulled my horns, but they created two prominent ridges in the hood, running along the sides of my head. Rain pooled in the middle, and I had to tilt my head back to let the water flow out.
“I see a break in the trees ahead,” Salvador announced.
Seyari turned to me. I put four hands up in mock surrender, then transformed to my human form. The typical fuzz of dulled senses washed over me, like a warm, wet blanket.
The break in the trees turned out to be a road; moderately-kept and wide enough for two wagons to pass. Salvador was certain he had which way was west figured out, so we started down the muddy track. Soon, we were walking through small farms.
We confirmed we were headed west at a small hamlet, then crossed a river on an old-looking bridge and camped the night in the woods on the other side. ‘We’ being Salvador. Seyari and I skirted the town, still paranoid of pursuit. I was not going to traipse about hiding in the woods forever, but I’d compromised with Seyari this one time since we weren’t staying in the town.
Thankfully, we reached a proper town the next day. This town was larger than Harriston by a margin. The main street was cobbled and lined with several businesses. We purchased replacements for much of the goods we’d lost. Thankfully, since we’d be traveling through a populated region, we could pack lighter and I wouldn’t have to carry two packs any longer. Seyari was also able to find supplies for her continued disguise as well. Even if Yothariel’s appearance wasn’t widely known, there were perks to not advertising her half-angel nature wherever we went.
After shopping and lunch, we needed to pick a place to stay. I picked out the nicest-looking inn, but Seyari and Salvador steered me toward a dive instead.
“Come on! Can’t we stay at the nice place?” I tried to give a pitiful look and failed.
“We’re running out of money, Zarenna,” Seyari replied apologetically.
“Oh.” My shoulders slumped. “Right.”
I turned to Salvador, who nodded.
I was outvoted.
We stepped inside. I ducked deeper than I needed to, mindful of horns that weren’t there right now. The first floor of this place was a pub, and the place had a well-worn, homey atmosphere that raised it above its more-than-modest exterior. I smelled ale, food, and a bit of sweat.
A bard was performing on a small stage in the corner. The kazzel woman layered her pleasant voice over the sound of her lute. The song had a style far different than what Ordian songs I remembered. I couldn’t place it, knowing as little about music as I did.
The lyrics of the tune, however, were in Ordian, punctuated sharply, and bawdy enough to turn the tips of my transformed ears red.
The three of us found spots at a long table and ordered food. I had to explain my ‘ogre heritage’ to a few people, but soon the warm atmosphere wrapped around me like a familiar outfit. From brief conversations, we were able to determine our route for the next few days. The fastest way to Lockmoth wouldn’t take us through any major towns.
I wasn’t certain if Aretan and Nelys would even be there, but if we wanted to sign on with some sort of group or guild, it’d be appropriate to have their input. I didn’t think either of them would mind.
I absolutely was not putting off joining some sort of company. Nope. Not at all. Despite what I knew about my transformation and the confidence I had started to gain in myself before the tragedy of recent days, I still wasn’t keen on risking my position. At the same time, I wanted nothing more than to show this whole inn right now that I was a demon and tell them they could all deal with it.
I didn’t. Causing an incident wouldn’t make me feel better. I was still angry about so much: the deaths of Lorelei, Markus, and Ruston; what happened with those two murderous hunters; how passive I was around Lilly; and even all the way back to the disaster with the vile Third Prince. I just wanted to be home. But now I knew home wasn’t going to be the same.
This new life I’ve been given comes with its own difficulties. I can’t deny them.
This whole time I’ve been afraid of losing who I was. But that’s just it. Who I was. Not who I am now. I’ve changed since my death. I’ve changed since two weeks ago. I’ll keep changing.
But I’ll keep in control of who I am, and who I want to be. I want to be the Sovereign of Wrath. On my own terms, yes, but not as a rejection of the title. I know who I am against, and I will come for their heads. There will be others to come, too, who will face my wrath.
I stared down into the stew I ordered. I saw flecks of some herb and at least one chunk of meat. The hearty bowl of food smelled great, but my stew wouldn’t be able to appreciate my new outlook.
I turned to the others. Salvador was eating quietly across from me, nodding gently along to the words of the slightly red-faced man next to him. To my side, Seyari was also staring into her stew as if it held the answer to some great question.
I put my hand gently on her thigh. She turned to me, and a small smile thawed her cool expression.
“Are you trying to find answers in your dinner?” I asked.
Seyari’s smile grew. “I suppose, but I didn’t get any useful ones.”
I wished I could see her golden eyes under the black dye. I smiled my own dull-toothed smile. “Ask the potatoes. They don’t know as much as the meat, but they speak freely. Ware the carrots, who lie and misdirect.”
One giggle slipped out of Seyari before she quickly moved a hand over her mouth to hold the others in. “Oh, and what of the broth, oh Stew Sage?”
I let my mouth hang open. “Huh? Broth can’t talk. It’s broth.”
Seyari’s expression shifted rapidly from confusion to anger to the biggest smile I’d seen on her in weeks. “If I wasn’t so hungry, I’d make you wear my dinner.”
“I think the colors would clash.”
Seyari narrowed her eyes. “Don’t tempt me.”
I leaned forward and whispered. “What if I want to tempt you?”
Both of us blushed at the same time. I wondered where those words of mine had come from. My newfound spine? A desire to confirm we were both alive? A dark corner of my mind wondered if I just wanted to find some way to feel pleasure after all that had happened.
With effort, I banished the thought. I had every right to feel happy, even in the wake of tragedy.
I was still stuck in my thoughts when Seyari’s lips met mine. I wanted to lean into the kiss, but remembered where we were and kept it chaste.
“You looked like you got stuck.” Seyari’s eyes were lidded.
“You got me unstuck,” I replied, touching my lips.
“Should we head to our room, then?” Seyari asked.
“I’d like that.” I nodded slowly. “I’ll eat fast.”
Seyari turned, looked at her full bowl of soup and frowned. Her stomach growled audibly.
We ate quickly and then excused ourselves, telling Salvador we were headed to our room to turn in early. He smiled softly and told us to have fun. I almost choked on my spit.
A few others from our table looked our way as we left. My demonic powers did not extend to willing myself out of existence from embarrassment.
Seyari and I entered our room, a plain worn straw bed in a tiny space with little to no furniture. That night, however, it was the best room I’d ever slept in.